Body image, sex appeal, attractiveness, beauty, self concept. I have two daughters. At eight and eighteen they stand on either side of those awkward years of puberty when most children go through growth spurts that cause their teeth to seem too big and their heads or feet to be out of proportion with their bodies. Boys may (or may not) begin to get facial hair and girls may (or may not) begin to develop breasts. If they don’t they start worrying about when they will. If they do more quickly than their friends they worry about standing out. What definitely begins, if it hasn’t already, are all the comparisons.
Personally, I navigated puberty relatively unscathed. And still, by mid-high school I was generally disappointed with my body. Most of my friends wore smaller sizes, yet I was shorter. My skin was fairly clear but I had this one spot on my chin that greeted me with a new zit every single month. My hair had body but straight hair or super kinky hair was much more hip. I had a sweet tooth and was not particularly active so gaining weigh was easy and weigh loss was a chore. While I sporadically played at dieting and exercise more often than not my efforts failed to produce the desired results. Even when I had a modicum of success (AKA lost a few pounds) it was short lived because my efforts were never rooted in healthy eating habits or lifestyle changes.
What I may have understood intuitively and am just not learning how to articulate (in time to have some conversations with my daughters) is that in order to get to the desired result–a size 8, the perfect 10, 36-24-36 measurements, silky blond straight hair, pout-y lips, high cheek bones, china white skin, and a 5’6″-5’7″ height–I would have needed to thwart my heritage, seriously helped a plastic surgeon stay employed, and grown four inches. It wasn’t ever going to happen, even if I gave up the ideal height. Given the reality of my genetics the only way I could have gotten close to the perfect 10 would have been to diet and exercise in decidedly unhealthy ways. Can we say appetite suppressants, anorexia, stimulants, bulimia, laxatives,…depression?
So, knowing the impossibility of it all why do I still have some ideal image stuck in my head? Where did I get that image in the first place? And, how can I get rid of it–replace it with a realistic, healthy image? Good questions but by now most of us know at least some of the answers. Hundreds if not thousands of times in a day we–women AND men–are bombarded by photo-shopped, airbrushed images of the ideal, the sexy, the desirable. We may think we’re just watching an advertisement for a product but we’re also advertising a body type.
While I am talking about women here, I am not ignorant of the fact that men are continuously given similar messages. I just don’t have that perspective. And as sexist as it might sound, I honestly believe the problem is more pervasive for women since we live in a world where men control the advertizing, the product designs, the purchasing dollars, and the politics.
But seriously, men are just as brainwashed by these images as women are. Just as loudly as women are told they need to measure up to what we’re told is beautiful, men are told, “if your girlfriend, lover, partner, wife doesn’t look like this then there might be something wrong with you.” Or, “you don’t have what it takes.” Or, “your sex can’t possibly be as good.” And, we buy the product being sold. And, we beat ourselves up over and over and over again. Even when we know what’s happening the shear number of sexually charged, idealized images of women complete with all the promises that you’ll be happier, have more fun, be successful make getting those images out of our heads or replacing them with honest healthy ones next to impossible.
This link to a Dustin Hoffman interview is what started this post. I watched it and it made me feel sad and angry and glad. I was glad someone–a man–was finally saying (in not so many words) “I’m sexist. Because I am a man raised in a male-is-normal, male-is-superior, male-is-the-measure culture. I am sexist. Because I bought the lie that to be worthy of me women need to look a certain way. I’ve been sexist and it grieves my heart.” In the short three minutes and eleven seconds of this video Mr. Hoffman revealed how sexist attitudes toward women not only harm women they harmed him, a man. Men and women are harmed. They’re harmed physically and they’re harmed intellectually. Their relationships are harmed. And, as a result society as a whole is harmed.